The Magazine

What's Up, Doc?

The prestige of honorary degrees falls to record lows.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Northwestern, the university where I taught for 30 years, appears to have caught its nether parts in a wringer. It seems they approached the Reverend Jeremiah Wright about accepting an honorary degree, and, now that Wright has made clear the kind of clergyman he is, Northwestern has withdrawn its offer. The president of the university, a man named Henry Bienen, in a letter to Reverend Wright, wrote that

in light of the controversy surrounding statements made by you that have recently been publicized, the celebratory character of Northwestern's commencement would be affected by our conferring of this honorary degree. Thus I am withdrawing the offer of an honorary degree previously extended to you.

Universities, those most cowardly of modern institutions, are never more beguiling than when caught out not having the courage of their lack of conviction. One can imagine the delight of the man or woman in Northwestern's provost office when he or she discovered Jeremiah Wright's name and put him up for an honorary degree. For it wouldn't do, when passing out honorary degrees each spring, not to have one go to an African American, and by now surely Northwestern must have awarded honorary degrees to all the usual suspects: Toni Morrison, Bill Cosby, Maya Angelou, John Hope Franklin, et alia.

And then, as the song has it, Reverend Wright went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid: not I love you but that the United States government invented AIDS to kill poor black people. Imagine now the meeting at Northwestern where it was decided to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Wright, with all turning to the doofus who suggested Jeremiah Wright's name in the first place. ("A fine mess you've got us into this time, Stanley!") All those powerful minds devising ways to cover the university's fleshy but soft flanks. Although it left Northwestern with the burden of finding another African American in time for commencement, the conclusion was inevitable: Sorry, Rev, no honorary doctorate for you.

The larger problem, really, is the conferring of honorary degrees generally. The practice goes back to the 15th century; the first honorary degree was awarded by Oxford to the Bishop of Salisbury. For many centuries thereafter honorary degrees tended to be awarded to scholars and scientists and occasionally to artists. This remains the policy of the University of Chicago; no businessmen or politicians are given honorary degrees. The year President Clinton was the school's commencement speaker, the faculty agreed to allow him to speak only if he were awarded no honorary degree.

Benjamin Franklin became "Dr. Franklin" owing to honorary degrees given him by St. Andrews and by Oxford for his scientific work with electricity. Perhaps the world's most famous Dr., Samuel Johnson, was a Dr. by honorary degrees awarded him by Trinity College, Dublin, and by Oxford. Maya Angelou, who regularly refers to herself as "Dr. Angelou," has honorary doctorates only, and no undergraduate degree to go with them. As an African American and a woman, she may well have more honorary doctorates than anyone in the history of this strange ritual.

My late friend Sol Linowitz once told me that he had 64 such degrees. Linowitz combined modest fame for good works (he was ambassador to the Organization of American States) with heavy bread (he had been the chairman of the board at Xerox), which made him a near perfect candidate for an honorary degree: someone not disgraceful who just might donate a large sum to the school that had honored him.

Universities often award honorary degrees with such obvious motives in mind. Getting a rich person to drop some of his or her swag on them is only one. Sheer vulgar publicity is another. Many years ago my wife's school, DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, gave an honorary degree to the newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck. When my wife wrote to the president of the school to suggest that doing so lowered the tone of the joint considerably, the president wrote back to say that Mrs. Bombeck gave a commencement talk full of laughs and that the talk was very well covered by the press. Case closed.